Clad in white radiation suits with triple layer-gloves, police and nuclear experts carefully probe the debris of an amateur dirty bomb.
There’s no need for alarm however, it’s not a nuclear emergency, but a typical afternoon at EUSECTRA, the new European Nuclear Security Training Center at the Institute for Transuranium Elements (ITU) near Karlsruhe in Germany.
‘The new thing here in the hands-on training in nuclear detection and measuring techniques is that we can combine modern instrumental techniques with access to a broad range of nuclear materials,’ said Dr Klaus Mayer, who leads the forensic analysis and the combating of illicit trafficking activities at the ITU, part of the EU’s in-house research service the Joint Research Centre.
‘These are not just radioactive materials, but nuclear materials: uranium and plutonium in a range of lower and more highly enriched forms.’
Within the last decade, detection efforts have turned up nuclear and other radioactive materials for instance in scrap metal in Rotterdam Harbour, the Netherlands, and in Hennigsdorf, Germany, and within the last two decades, more than 40 cases of seized nuclear materials have been analysed at ITU.
Trainers at ITU simulate different scenarios including the accidental spillage during the assembly of a ‘dirty bomb’ and then classify the exact isotopic composition of plutonium, even to the degree of being able to identify its probable source. These are important elements of the training.
‘We teach them how to take classical forensic evidence where there might be a risk of contamination, how to prevent cross-contamination of radiation, and how to protect themselves whilst simultaneously taking forensic samples,’ Dr Mayer said.
At ITU, government employed front-line officers and experts are taught how to detect and respond to illicit trafficking of nuclear and other radioactive materials.
Within the grounds of the new compound, a variety of mock-ups use security gates for vehicles, typical of border crossings or ports. Indoors, trainers have reconstructed a mock-up airport, including the security gate area. Though relatively new, the monitors – which detect minute amounts of radioactive or nuclear materials – are already in use in a number of European airports.
‘We can combine modern instrumental techniques with access to a broad range of nuclear materials.’
Dr Klaus Mayer, head of forensic analysis at the Institute for Transuranium Elements
Security officers are first taught to distinguish a real alarm from what they call an innocent alarm, which is one caused by radiation from natural or legal sources. Lorries filled with potassium-rich bananas, fertilisers, ceramics, medical supplies, or passengers who have had thyroid treatments, can all trigger innocent alarms for radioactivity.
If the alert is genuine, this is the beginning of the harder work: ascertaining whether the material is from an industrial or medical source – since radioactive elements have many applications – or whether it is a rogue supply.
Using specially designed state-of-the-art glove boxes, the fissile metals can be safely manipulated and analysed.
Training remains one of the key priorities of the ITU, according to its director Professor Thomas Fanghänel. Especially since the threat from smuggling and proliferation is still there, and the risks remain unclear.
‘It is definitely an issue, and we do not know how many cases actually exist. Maybe what we know is just the tip of the iceberg,’ he said, adding: ‘One thing is clear, we have to develop methodology, techniques and infrastructure in order to prevent, to detect and to respond.’
One of the biggest drawbacks of electric vehicles – that they require hours and hours to charge – could be obliterated by a new type of liquid battery that is roughly ten times more energy-dense than existing models, according to Professor Lee Cronin, the Regius Chair of Chemistry at the University of Glasgow, UK.
The first day that Jérôme Delafosse stepped aboard the Energy Observer, an experimental catamaran run on hydrogen, he knew the plan of sailing around the world on clean energy was a realistic one, he says. Now, the explorer and documentary maker is one year into a six-year odyssey around the globe with his friend Victorien Erussard, an ocean racer and former cruise ship officer, to prove that the technology can be used for pollution-free ocean travel in the future.
Bill Gates and the European Commission have launched a €100 million investment fund designed to bring radical clean energy technologies more quickly to market in order to promote energy efficiency and cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Hydrogen can be used to power cars, supply electricity and heat homes, all with zero carbon emissions. The snag is that the vast majority of hydrogen itself is derived from fossil fuels – a fact that scientists are now hoping to change. They plan to clean up production to kickstart a dedicated economy – something that has already found small-scale success in Scotland’s Orkney Islands.
Europe's leadership 'more important than ever', says Gates.
The goal is to remove reliance on fossil fuels.
Tracking people’s daily and lifetime movements will determine link between environment and mental health, says Dr Marco Helbich.